Archaeological discoveries from Blick Mead, a Mesolithic ‘home base’ located beside a spring c.2.5km from Stonehenge, have been revelatory, uncovering extensive evidence of hunter-gatherer communities coming together to create thousands of flint tools and to share elaborate feasts (see CA 325, 324, and 271). Until recently, however, analyses of the site’s sediments indicated that preservation of environmental evidence within them was poor. Any chance of relating Blick Mead’s long and detailed radiocarbon date sequence for occupation (spanning c.8000-3600 BC, it is unique for north-western Europe) to evidence for how the landscape looked and changed across those four millennia was seemingly stymied.
This was a problem as, since the identification of Blick Mead’s Mesolithic importance, there has been increasing debate as to whether the monumental archaeology of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site was created in an uninhabited forested landscape, or whether it was constructed in an already partly open area of pre-existing significance to late Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Given the fact that the later stages of Blick Mead’s occupation overlap with the construction of the first elements of the Stonehenge landscape, the site is of significance to the global discussion about the exact relationship between incoming farmers and ‘indigenous’ hunter-gatherers at the dawn of the Neolithic period. Therefore, there was a strong set of incentives to involve the very latest scientific techniques and see if it was possible to identify more eco facts about Blick Mead and its locale. In 2019, a collaboration between Southampton University, the University of Buckingham, UiT Tromsø, and the University of Vienna (created as a result of the long-standing interest in Blick Mead of Southampton University’s Professor Tony Brown) provided such an opportunity.
As our investigation (which was first published in PLOS ONE; see ‘Further reading’) began, the first step was to carry out a 20m borehole survey across the floodplain close to Blick Mead, to ascertain the local topography and likely Mesolithic contexts. Samples were also taken from already known Mesolithic contexts in trenches that had been opened on the terrace, the spring, and the interface between them. Ancient DNA (aDNA) content in the sampled sediments was processed by specialists at UiT Tromsø and Southampton University, and the samples were dated using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) techniques by the University of Vienna. These dates were set against those already obtained from radiocarbon dating by the University of Buckingham and, taken together, the work confirmed the presence and extent of prehistoric horizons dating from the very Late Upper Palaeolithic/Early Mesolithic, c.9160 BC (the earliest date recovered from Blick Mead and, indeed, from the Stonehenge World Heritage Site), to the very Late Mesolithic period.
These layers were found sealed beneath plough soil and terraces dated to the mid-Bronze Age, thus confirming the digging team’s previous identification of their age and, crucially, no contamination of aDNA or pollen was evident from later human activity in this sequence. Above the Bronze Age plough soil, the environmental time-slices continued through to the present day. Astonishingly, Blick Mead thus provides an environmental archive of this part of the World Heritage Site across the whole of the Holocene. It is the only place in Western Europe to have produced such a sequence.
Evoking the environment
What can we learn about the site’s prehistoric environment from this sequence? The Upper Palaeolithic/early Mesolithic-dated context provided few DNA reads, but we were able to identify the presence of willow, hinting at woodland standing close to the site around 9160 BC. Meanwhile, in the late Mesolithic samples, dated by OSL to c.5690 BC, analysis revealed the presence of a light woodland shrubs of apple, rose, dogwood, and ivy; elm woodland on dryer areas of the floodplain; and species such as willow and horsetail on wetter ground nearer to the river channel. Around 4650 BC, there appears to have been a slight decrease in shrubs, but large increases in thistles, bindweeds, dock/sorrel, and stinging nettle, pointing to a damp meadow community that had areas of disturbed ground.
The upper samples, taken from the occupation area on the terrace at Blick Mead and radiocarbon-dated to the very late Mesolithic (4052-4236 cal BC), provided evidence for aspen and the continued presence of elm, both common species on floodplains. Alder was also identified, probably forming carr woodland with willow, along with the addition of lime, on higher, drier ground. An increasing community of meadow herbs suggested the continuation of a relatively open landscape, with plantain, buttercups, clover, meadowsweet, and sweetgrass again indicating areas of damp and disturbed local conditions. The discovery of species such as yellow rattle, bird’s-foot trefoil, and rock rose in the final upper sample – common elements of dry chalk grassland – however, suggests that by the end of the sequence there had been a move away from a wet floodplain environment towards the kind of chalkland scrub the Stonehenge landscape has become known for. One particularly notable species that we identified was henbane – rather interesting because of the plant’s psychotropic qualities. It is known to have been used by early farmers in the Neolithic period, if not earlier.
In total, 65 species of pollen and 20 specific spore species were revealed by our analysis of Mesolithic contexts at Blick Mead – a stark contrast to the grand total of zero that we had at the time of the site monograph’s publication in 2018. The pollen assemblage aligns well with the aDNA in suggesting a meadow environment with no enclosed woodland, giving us a vivid image of what the ancient landscape looked like for the first time. The difference between 2018 and now is the technological advances that have been made even in that short time, allied with a multi-proxy approach to the data with clear research-based questions, coming from an interdisciplinary team from different institutions and countries. This is surely a salutary reminder to those who advocate ‘rescuing’ the archaeology in the World Heritage Site, as a result of it being revealed by the planned Stonehenge tunnel scheme: we can find much more information about past landscapes in the future if there is data left in situ to be examined by teams who have had the time to develop specific research questions for it.
Evolution of a landscape
Taken together, the Blick Mead results allow us to trace the development of a floodplain-edge clearing at the site from the early Holocene, where a damp meadow environment had appeared within an open clearing in deciduous woodland by around 6,000 BC. This clearing by the spring may have been key for attracting large herbivores, such as aurochs and deer, to graze and drink, as evidenced by the discovery of well-preserved aurochs hoofprints close to the spring edge. Hunter-gatherers made use of this landscape to target such large and likely prestigious animals. The evidence from the DNA of plants representing disturbed, nutrient-enriched ground points to the movement of these large animals through the area, which may have led to the suppression of woodland regeneration.
Overall, our study underscores that floodplain sediments can provide suitable samples for successful environmental analysis using ancient sedimentary DNA (sedaDNA), provided they survive within a stable depositional environment where the water table has not been affected. All these landscape changes can also be placed within a detailed chronological framework built on the new OSL dating, existing radiocarbon dating, and relative archaeological dating, so that we now have a detailed framework for understanding this key chapter in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site’s backstory.
Our results indicate that Blick Mead’s location, within one of the most archaeologically rich river valleys in the UK, arguably needs to be understood not as an isolated environment in the Stonehenge landscape, but as a key part of a series of more open areas along the chalkland floodplain that have yet to be explored. Its radiocarbon date range connects the building of the totem pole-like posts that were erected on the Stonehenge Knoll and Boscombe Down in the early Mesolithic, through to the twilight of the Mesolithic and the arrival of the first farmers into the area around 4000 BC, and into the mid-Neolithic. Durham University’s recent reanalysis of the animal bone and lithics assemblage from the Coneybury Anomaly (c.3700 BC; its contents have been interpreted as reflecting a meeting between Neolithic and hunter-gatherer groups) adds detail to this picture, and is suggestive of much older understandings of the landscape being shared in what seems to be a multicultural area in the early Neolithic.
The importance of Blick Mead as a potential ‘hub point’ is attested to by its vast and diverse collection of Mesolithic struck flint – c.100,000 pieces from the small area excavated, which is still within the limits of the penalty area on a football pitch – with some of the lithics, such as a slate projectile point, originating from more than 100km away. The site’s animal-bone assemblage and unusually large quantities of intensively burnt flint, deposited over millennia, point to a long-known place associated with prestige hunts, feasting, and probably detailed rituals. Adding to this, the environmental record revealed since 2019 now provides a natural archive to frame all of the discoveries. Based on these findings and the other research results from the site, a new project is set to begin this month, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Its aim is to investigate the pre-Stonehenge environment of the eastern fringe of the World Heritage Site, especially the river valley, through coring and by further applying the new techniques of sediment analysis used at Blick Mead.
Without the survival of sedaDNA and pollen from Blick Mead, maintained by water-table levels over millennia, the new insights we have gained into the development of this part of the Stonehenge landscape during the Mesolithic and into the early Neolithic would have been lost. Blick Mead’s wider environs, however, have not been explored, and any chance to do so will be lost if tunnel works disturb the water table and interfere with the local hydrological regime. We argue that water monitoring at Blick Mead has, to-date, been inadequate, and this must be addressed in order to assess any hydrological impact at this important site. What is clear, however, is the impact that this site is having on our understanding of the Stonehenge landscape, and how its environment – and human use of this environment – has changed over prehistory.
S M Hudson, B Pears, D Jacques, T Fonville, P Hughes, I Alsos et al. (2022) ‘Life before Stonehenge: the hunter-gatherer occupation and environment of Blick Mead revealed by sedaDNA, pollen and spores’, PLOS ONE 17(4): https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266789.
Source David Jacques is Professorial Research Fellow in Archaeology at the University of Buckingham. Sam Hudson is a Postgraduate Research Student at the University of Southampton’s School of Geography and Environmental Science.